Last Sunday Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Britain, wrote this important op-ed in Newsweek. Although he’s made some of these points before, they certainly bear repeating.
Anti-semitism is a virus that survives by mutating. In the Middle Ages, Jews were hated because of their religion. In the 19th and 20th centuries they were hated because of their race. Today they are hated because of their nation state, Israel. Anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism.
The legitimization has also changed. Throughout history, when people have sought to justify anti-Semitism, they have done so by recourse to the highest source of authority available within the culture. In the Middle Ages, it was religion. In post-Enlightenment Europe it was science. Today it is human rights. It is why Israel—the only fully functioning democracy in the Middle East with a free press and independent judiciary—is regularly accused of the five crimes against human rights: racism, apartheid, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide. This is the blood libel of our time.
In this column, one passage in particular struck me:
Anti-Semitism is a classic example of what anthropologist René Girard sees as the primal form of human violence: scapegoating. When bad things happen to a group, its members can ask two different questions: “What did we do wrong?” or “Who did this to us?” The entire fate of the group will depend on which it chooses.
If it asks, “What did we do wrong?” it has begun the self-criticism essential to a free society. If it asks, “Who did this to us?” it has defined itself as a victim. It will then seek a scapegoat to blame for all its problems. Classically this has been the Jews.
I’m not sure “What did we do wrong?” is necessarily the right question; it carries a lot of victim-blaming baggage. I would re-phrase it as, “What can we do to make sure this does not happen to us again?” Certainly, that is the question that the Jews asked after the Holocaust — what can we do to ensure that this does not happen to us again? And we focused on building a state. Jews in Israel built it and Jews in the Diaspora supported it. Today that state is a thriving democracy with a dynamic economy and a rich culture. It’s also a refuge for Jews from around the rest of the world.
After the Six-Day War, Palestinian Arabs could also have asked, “What can we do to make sure this does not happen again, to make our own situation better?” They, too, could have focused on building the predicates for statehood – a strong economy, civic organizations, infrastructure. Instead, they asked “Who did this to us?” And instead of turning to the governments of Jordan, Egypt, and Syria, which had instigated the war that resulted in what they call “the occupation,” in the classic fashion Rabbi Sacks describes, they scapegoated the Jews.
This may be one reason that Israel is becoming a partisan issue in the US. Republicans tend to look at Israel and see a country that has pulled itself up by its bootstraps, and they admire it. They look at Palestinian Arabs and wonder why they refuse to help themselves. Democrats, on the other hand, are more likely to look at Palestinian Arabs and see helpless victims, and look at Israel and say, “You didn’t build that.”
This is also why voices like Bassem Eid’s are so important. Eid argues that Palestinians must help themselves, and has called for a democratic government, the strengthening of Palestinian civil society, and economic development. Surely, if they choose to, Palestinian Arabs will find many in Israel who will support their endeavors. Until they stop seeking a scapegoat and stop seeking retribution and revenge, however, their situation will only continue to deteriorate.